Feminism in 2014: An Abridged History

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Some of the faces of 2014 feminism, from left to right: Beyoncé Knowles, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Ellen Page, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. (Lionel Hahn / Abaca Press/TNS; Apega/Abaca Press/TNS; Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times/ TNS)

Some of the faces of 2014 feminism, from left to right: Beyoncé Knowles, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Ellen Page, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. (Lionel Hahn / Abaca Press/TNS; Apega/Abaca Press/TNS; Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times/ TNS)
Some of the faces of 2014 feminism, from left to right: Beyoncé Knowles, Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Ellen Page, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. (Lionel Hahn/Abaca Press/TNS; Apega/Abaca Press/TNS; Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

By ALANNA KILKEARY
Staff Writer
Published: December 10, 2014

About 10 minutes into Beyoncé’s 2014 VMA Performance, an audio recording from “We Should All Be Feminists,” a TEDxEuston talk by Nigerian author, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, began pounding through the speakers at The Forum L.A. The recording went as follows:

“We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful, otherwise you will threaten the man. Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.”

And at that moment, the word FEMINIST appeared in ferocious white block letters behind Ms. Knowles, and she began to sing “Bow Down,” followed by “Flawless,” her #81 hit on Billboard’s Top 100 in 2013. Standing on stage in her bejeweled Tom Ford body suit and fishnet stockings, Beyoncé created history. Hours later, “***Flawless Feminism” would burst from headlines across the country at news outlets such as The Huffington Post, TIME Magazine and CNN. Her performance shook up social media, conceiving hashtags on Twitter, lists on Buzzfeed and gifs on Tumblr. All of these outlets had one thing in common—a capitalized single word: FEMINIST. 

One source of “feminist” as a buzzword resurged on the Internet back in January 2013, when Lena Dunham, creator and star of the hit HBO Series, “Girls,” noted to Metro UK that “Women saying ‘I’m not a feminist’ is [her] greatest pet peeve.” Dunham told Metro UK that, “People think there is something taboo about speaking up for feminism. I know for a long time that I was embarrassed to call out misogyny because I was then going to be that complaining girl who can’t let go. But the fact is, we can’t let it go—not until we feel like we have been heard.” 

Fast-forward to a year later, January 2014, “Parks and Recreation” star Amy Poehler sat down with Elle Magazine and kick started the whirlwind of feminism in celebrity culture of 2014. Poehler told Elle: “I think some big actors and musicians feel like they have to speak to their audience and that word [feminism] is confusing to their audience. But I don’t get it. That’s like someone being like, ‘I don’t really believe in cars, but I drive one every day and I love that it gets me places and makes life so much easier and faster and I don’t know what I would do without it.’” The beloved Poehler defines herself as a feminist and notes that this is a term so weaved within our lives, that it is sometimes hard to even distinguish. 

In July 2014, Ellen Page, who publicly came out at the Human Rights Campaign: Time to Thrive Conference earlier in the year, made her view on feminism extremely explicit. The LGBTQ activist and actress told The Guardian, “I don’t know why people are so reluctant to say they’re feminists. Maybe some women just don’t care. But how could it be any more obvious that we still live in a patriarchal world when feminism is a bad word?” Page also noted to The Guardian that her definition of feminism has shifted from its 1970s term. “Feminism always gets associated with being a radical movement—good. It should be. A lot of what the radical feminists [in the 1970s] were saying, I don’t agree with,” Page said. Feminism has shifted with time, and it is no longer about power for women, it is about equality on the most basic level. The Guardian notes that one of the biggest differences between radical feminists of the 1960s and 1970s and feminists of today, is that modern-day feminists are often afraid to even use the term feminism. “If you are a female celebrity, being a ‘modern day feminist’ seems to involve distancing yourself from the word,” The Guardian reported in July. 

“Up until a while ago—“feminist” was seen as a dangerous and derogatory term,”   Aimee Cox, cultural anthropologist and professor of African American Studies at Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) said. “It was this archaic idea that feminists were man-hating and radical, very not in touch with every-day life.” Over time, Cox explained, the term has shifted its meaning. “More and more women and men are [now] writing about what feminism really means—we started to see [feminism] coming up in real life examples—and it became a crossover between activists, academics and pop culture” Cox said. “The problem is not the practice—but the name, which has been misunderstood.”

On Aug. 24, 2014, at the MTV’s annual Video Music Awards, Beyoncé Knowles made the “#Feminist” hash tag blow up on social media around the world with her unforgettable performance. “She’s a phenomenon,” said Cox said, when asked to comment on Beyoncé’s act. “She has so much power to reach so many different people- I think it is powerful, for all the folks that saw that, Beyoncé claiming this title, and even if the only result is people saying, ‘okay, I’m going to explore this’- it won’t necessarily transform all young women—but it brings awareness and puts it out there,” Cox said. 

After “Queen Bey” absolutely rocked the feminist world at the VMAs, journalists at varied magazines and media outlets asked more and more celebrities if they ‘considered’ themselves feminists. One of these celebrities is one of the most current female powerhouses (figuratively, and literally) in our world today: Taylor Swift. Swift told The Guardian: “What [feminism] seemed to me, the way it was phrased in culture, society, was that you hate men. And now, I think a lot of girls have had a feminist awakening because they understand what the word means. For so long, it’s been made to seem like something where you’d picket against the opposite sex, whereas it’s not about that at all.” Swift does not consider herself a “feminist,” but confesses that she believes she has been upholding feminist values without even realizing it. “Becoming friends with Lena [Dunham]- without her preaching to me, but just seeing why she believes what she believes, why she says what she says, why she stands for what she stands for- has made me realize that I’ve been taking a feminist stance without actually saying so” Swift told The Guardian. 

The buzzword took an even more massive term in September 2014, when Emma Watson, a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador, made a speech launching the “HeForShe” campaign. According to Vanity Fair, “HeForShe” aims to “galvanize one billion men and boys as advocates for ending the inequalities that women and girls face globally.” In her speech at the U.N., Watson maintained, “I decided I was a feminist and this seemed uncomplicated to me. But my recent research has shown me that feminism has become an unpopular word. Apparently I am among the ranks of women whose expressions are seen as too strong, too aggressive, isolating, anti-men and, unattractive.” Vanity Fair reported that Watson is “pushing back against recent campaigns like ‘Women Against Feminism’ […because…] these campaigns portray the feminist cause as ‘man-hating.’ By involving both genders in the HeForShe campaign, Watson hopes to abolish the ‘us vs. them’ mentality.” Within the same time frame as Watson’s speech, some noted male celebrities such as Joseph Gordon Levitt and Aziz Ansari came out as male “feminists” in interviews on talk shows.. 

Watson also addressed that there is no reason why feminism should have such a taboo attached to it. In her speech, she noted, “Why is the word such an uncomfortable one? I am from Britain and think it is right that as a woman I am paid the same as my male counterparts. I think it is right that I should be able to make decisions about my own body. I think it is right that women be involved on my behalf in the policies and decision-making of my country. I think it is right that socially I am afforded the same respect as men. But sadly I can say that there is no one country in the world where all women can expect to receive these rights.” 

Similar to Watson’s claims, Cox, too, believes that the word needs to be understood to be carried out. “The upside is that you want people to understand these terms to live better lives. The dangerous part is when it becomes something that because it’s used often, becomes oversimplified” Cox said. Cox went on to explain that with this danger, anyone could argue that anything is “feminist,” like performing outrageous behaviors, such as, walking in a public space without any clothes. “It could be come so visible and simplified, [which] would make it meaningless” Cox said. 

In Nov. 2014, TIME Magazine released a poll titled, “Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015?” Among the list were commonly overused and irksome words that are constantly floating around the Internet, such as, “bae,” “basic,” “turnt,” and “sorrynotsorry.” Even “kale” was considered as a word to be banned in the coming year. Fifth down on the list, lo and behold, was 2014’s most buzzed-about F-word. “Feminist: You have nothing against feminism itself, but when did it become a thing that every celebrity had to state their position on whether this word applies to them, like some politician declaring a party? Let’s stick to the issues and quit throwing this label around like ticker tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade,” TIME published on its website. Shortly after the poll was posted online, TIME’s Managing Editor, Nancy Gibbs, added in a correction at the top of the article. “TIME apologizes for the execution of this poll; the word ‘feminist’ should not have been included in a list of words to ban. While we meant to invite debate about some ways the word was used this year, that nuance was lost, and we regret that its inclusion has become a distraction from the important debate over equality and justice,” Gibbs wrote. 

When asked to comment on TIME’s controversial decision to place “feminist” in this poll, Cox revealed that she was not surprised. “I think it’s backlash—when something moves into the norm, everyone’s like, ‘oh wait a minute!’ there’s fear,” Cox said. “It’s going to happen all the time as the term is moving into an acceptable space.”

Fast forward to now, the end of 2014. Article titles swarm around our Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter feeds all with a similar type of ring to them, topics such as, “This Feminist Twist on ‘The Princess Bride’ Will Give You Life,” “25 Things That Happen When You Talk About Feminism On The Internet,” “14 Reasons We All Need Feminism,” or “17 Female Celebrities Who Have the Right Idea About Feminism.” This term, this buzzword, is consistently popping up in social media nearly every day. 

Wallis Monday, FCLC ’16, is the President of the feminist club at FCLC, In Strength I Stand (ISIS). Monday maintained, “ISIS (which she pointed out is also the name of the Egyptian goddess of womanhood and fertility) is a group that focuses on facilitating conversation. A lot of people who come to our events and meetings are freshmen—which we really like that—we love to see freshmen, cause for a lot of them, it’s the first time that they’re feeling comfortable identifying as a feminist, or finding out more about women’s issues, gender issues.” Monday revealed that in ISIS, “it’s good if you identify as a feminist, it’s great if you take steps after that and are actively willing to dismantle the oppression that you see in your daily lives.” 

When asked about the negative connotation and buzz around feminism, Monday remarked, “Yeah, every female in pop culture is asked if she’s a feminist these days, and I like that, because it’s good to have that word in heavy circulation … I think it’s becoming trendy … I think we’re entering an era of media that’s becoming a lot more socially conscious.” 

Monday believes that the push from celebrity culture drove feminism into a good light by fleshing out the negativity surrounding it and making it a word that people pay attention to. “We’re starting to see terminology and language and discussions happening on major news outlets that you would not have seen 10 years ago. I hope that it only continues to grow. I think you can’t use the term [feminism] enough in the media right now.” 

Gabrielle Libretti, FCLC ’17 and member of ISIS, also weighed in. “Some media portrayals aren’t necessarily positive towards feminism or inclusive or correct. There’s misinformation out there. Like asking a celebrity if they’re a feminist is silly, and I think most self-identified feminists have larger concerns,” Libretti said. But, Libretti maintained that the constant exposure to this term online bodes well for our future generations. “At the same time, it’s awesome that more and more people are exposed to feminism. Like I hope all the little boys and girls and gender-nonconforming kiddos out there who see Beyoncé on TV with the word ‘FEMINIST’ behind her, without knowing fully what it means, end up googling it and exposing themselves to a wealth of information to help positively affect their lives and their futures.”

Cox agrees that this attention is good. “When I was your age—we didn’t talk about these things. We didn’t have the language or words to,” Cox said. Cox affirmed that our generation of millennia’s has transformed what the word meant to her generation. “You are all operating with these ways in mind—feminism, race, power, and you all have the language—which will add to the sustainability [of all of these things.]”